Sunday, April 19, 2009

Why I hate or also maybe love reviews 2c: (the review as "epic theater")

Over the past couple posts I’ve been trying to tease out why I've found work-related reviews pointless if not counterproductive, a ceremonial experience.

I've been trying to describe how reviews make manifest an implicit conflict between two systems of value operating in any hierarchical working relationship: a financial bond (wages for labor) and a social bond (work for social approval and approbation)

Most of the time we can largely ignore or at least sublimate the fact that we work for money. In fact, most of us say “it’s not about the money” with some frequency in the course of out working lives to suggest that we are driven by less crass motivations.

But when we sit down to a review we (manager and employee) don't just have to remember but actually experience the basic hard facts of a working relationship:
1) The manager decides how much the employee gets paid and/or if he or she gets paid
2) This depends to some degree on the review, that is happening right then.

The sudden recognition of this unpleasant or at least kind of harsh fact makes everyone really uncomfortable, like suddenly noticing a sore on the lip of your blind date. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but you can’t really ignore it. It has to be acknowledged eventually but how do you talk about it without damaging the rest of the relationship and the relationship’s goals—whether that goal is a productive workplace or a fun night of sex or falling in love.

What usually happens is that we (manager and employee) take a middle road. The manager tries to be positive but critical enough around a couple key issues so the employee doesn’t get too big for his or her britches or starts to “overvalue” themselves and assume they are getting more money ("managing expectations") while the employee does their best to nod like a good listener who is open and un-defensive ("a learning experience") but all along try to mention just enough positive facts about him or herself to remind the manager about how much value they bring to the organization.

After a certain unit of time (say 40 minutes) or number of constructive criticisms were voiced and earnestly acknowledged (say 3), we can say that the ceremony has ended.

What's unpleasant is of course also paradoxically great. The very ineffectiveness of the review--it's source of profound and deep social lies on both sides--also makes it a source of great epic theater, in the Brechtian sense. The review fractures, if only for a while, the ideological and artificial fantasy we maintain about working relationships, bringing to consciousness the very facts we strive to hide from ourselves and one another.

From out the depths of the sun-dappled pond in which we frolic, we sense something rising, something large, cold and primitive, something that was beneath us all along but which we now must strain to ignore, as it brushes alongside our exposed limbs, sending ripples to the surface, until the review is over and the great leviathan turns and retreats back to the muddy bottom where he dwells and waits out of our site.


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